BEMIDJI -- After nearly 34 years as Bemidji’s unofficial greeter, Carol Olson is leaving her post this week in the wake of changes at the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce.
“This has been my home away from home,” Olson said last week. "Our first thing is customer service and being cheerful when tourists come in and helping them find what is exciting to do and why they should be excited to be here," she told the Pioneer in a 2014 interview.
This is the final week of employment for Olson and her workmate of seven years, Dean Beattie. They will be honored Thursday with a public open house from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Tourist Information Center. Cookies and refreshments will be provided.
Olson started at the Chamber on April 26, 1986 when it was located in a log cabin building located next to the statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. That building was later replaced by the current Tourist Information Center.
She’s been greeting visitors, answering their questions, making suggestions on activities and telling Bemidji’s story. In addition to helping those who stop in after seeing Paul and Babe, Olson has done dozens of media interviews over the years.
“I gave up a Labor Day weekend when the New York Times came to town,” she said. “I’ve absolutely enjoyed being the unofficial spokesperson for the town.”
Olson missed out on one celebrity’s visit. The late actress Jane Russell, who was born in Bemidji, last visited in 2002.
“I was down in the Twin Cities that day,” Olson said. “When I got back everyone was so excited to tell me that I had missed seeing Jane Russell. They showed me the picture they took of Jane, and I noticed she was not in front of Paul. They said she did not want to be upstaged by Paul Bunyan.”
Olson, 72, is a lifelong Bemidji resident. Her childhood home was near Gordon Falls Park at 11th Street and Irvine Avenue. She attended Central School, but spent sixth grade in a makeshift classroom at J.W. Smith after Central burned down. She graduated from Bemidji High School in 1965, then attended Minneapolis Business College and Northwest Technical College.
She and her ex-husband, Wayne Olson, have two children, Stephanie and Bradley.
Carol has always been a numbers person, and she prides herself on tracking how many people have visited the TIC and where they are from.
“One of things we’ve noticed lately is the amount of people coming back, bringing their grandkids, because they remember coming here or living here,” Olson said.
Beattie, 74, started as a summer part-timer in 2012, but was asked to stay on after Labor Day. Some seven years later, he has appreciated the opportunity to work with Olson as a team.
“We’ve had an excellent working relationship,” he said. “We complement each other a lot. She remembers names of families, she knows the area so incredibly well.”
Beattie also knows Bemidji well. He and his wife, Donna, moved here 42 years ago when they bought Lake Region Paint & Decorating. They owned the store until 1996.
“In my years with my store I remember a lot of people,” he said. “I still see many of my customers.”
Beattie said he and Olson have enjoyed helping people make the best of their visits to the Bemidji area.
“A lot of visitors come back in and shake our hands and tell us what a good time they had,” he said.